While St. Petersburg once again dodged the brunt of a major hurricane, many residents face extensive rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Idalia’s four-to-six-foot storm surge inundated homes in low-lying areas.
City fighters rescued over 75 people from rising waters Wednesday; many live in the waterfront Shore Acres neighborhood. Christie Bruner, vice president of advocacy for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, has lived there for 20 years.
She expressed shock at how quickly waters receded by Thursday morning despite catastrophic flooding that surpassed recent storms. “It’s just amazing how quickly it can go from in your front yard and up to your front door, and then it all pulls back to just a regular day in the bay,” Bruner said.
“I drove all along the waterfront to get downtown, just to see the water, and it looks like it’s low tide.”
Bruner and her family left home Monday afternoon after local officials ordered mandatory evacuations. They packed some belongings and rode out the storm at her husband’s parents’ winter condo in nearby Seminole.
She explained that the current Bruner residence is their fourth in Shore Acres. The family developed an affinity for the flood-prone neighborhood but sought higher ground.
The strategic move paid off as water did not enter their home. Many Shore Acres residents stayed in the neighborhood and were not so fortunate.
“I think it’s really important that when there’s a mandatory evacuation, that everybody thinks of the community aspects,” Bruner added. “So that first responders can attend to people who really need the help.”
St. Pete Fire Rescue received a call about a house fire in Shore Acres at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday. Flooding prevented standard trucks could not reach the blaze.
Firefighters reached the home and rescued the uninjured resident by boat. Specialized teams using limited equipment extinguished the fire several hours later.
“We drove by that house this morning, and it’s gone,” Bruner said. “It’s just a shell. It’s just crazy how surreal the water levels were.”
Kevin Batdorf, president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, has lived in the neighborhood since 1986. He said Idalia’s flooding was worse than any storm since Hurricane Elana in 1985.
He and Bruner noted that the cleanup process has already started, and wet carpets and other debris line streets. Batdorf said it breaks his heart to know that National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policies do not provide alternative housing.
He explained that private insurers typically don’t underwrite policies in flood-prone areas, leaving residents with little other options. Batdorf also sought to clear up a common misconception about Shore Acres.
While the area is home to dozens of waterfront properties, he said it is not a wealthy neighborhood.
“Most of the houses that flood are not waterfront properties,” Batdorf said. “These are your blue collar – nurses, teachers, those types of people – the workforce housing that the city so needs, that are devasted right now.”
He credited city officials and police officers for preventing looters or sightseers from entering the neighborhood. A vehicle driving through flooded areas can push water into otherwise dry homes.
Councilmember Ed Montanari repeatedly called with updates and pertinent information, which Batdorf published on the association’s Facebook page. He said social media was “extremely helpful” during the disaster, as dozens of residents sought rescues “because they didn’t expect flooding to be this bad.”
Batdorf said the association added 350 new members to its Facebook group over the past two days. He called Emergency Manager Amber Boulding, who provided the neighborhood with “fortuitous” storm preparation information a week before Idalia, a “superstar.”
Bruner said the Chamber is preparing a list of vetted recovery contractors for home and business owners. Both believe community spirit will see residents through the recovery process.
Bruner let neighbors know they could shower or wash laundry at her home Thursday. Batdorf noted that the Riviera United Methodist Church on 62nd Avenue N. offered to help those in need.
He said civic pride is part of what makes Shore Acres special. “Can you imagine waking up in the morning and there’s two feet of water in your house?” Batdorf asked.
“But we’ll get through it. We’ve been through it before. I know there’s a lot of new homeowners who are probably stunned by this. But we’re a resilient community, and we always come together.”